Chatting up Mainlanders on Hong Kong’s East Rail Line

MTR East Rail Line (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Their group crowded onto the East Rail Line at Kowloon Tong, dragging overloaded shopping trolleys, backpacks and plastic carrier bags. That was the first hint that they were from the Mainland. The second was the overzealous love of patterns evident in the middle-age women’s outfits: if these blue striped trousers are lovely and this red floral shirt is lovely, then they are twice as lovely together! And finally, their non-existent sense of personal space — one nearly sat on my daughter — was the clincher.

For a few stops, I simply sat, watched them, and studied the parts of their shopping haul that I could see: Darlie brand toothpaste (yes, the brand that was historically called “Darkie”), Tempo tissues, Lux soap, twelve cans of Coca-Cola, a case of infant formula, and a bunch of maddeningly opaque bags that I couldn’t peer into.

Historical progression of “Darlie” brand toothpaste. (Photo courtesy of Sinosplice)

They were speaking in Cantonese, but after steeling my courage, I addressed them in Mandarin, the lingua franca of the Mainland. My assumptions proved right and I happily stretched my Chinese muscles and carried out my first real Mandarin conversation in ages.

I wanted to know all about their shopping and they must have thought that my obsessive interest in listing the contents of their shopping bags in childish Chinese was very weird: “牙膏! 宝宝奶粉! 可口可乐! 还是 鼻子纸!”  In return, they wanted to know all about why I speak (some) Mandarin and the age of my daughter with the “白白的皮肤!眼睛很蓝色!像小娃娃!” (“Fair, fair skin and very blue eyes! Like a baby doll!”).

In the end, I told them that I also used to travel to Hong Kong to buy infant formula and medicines when I lived in Zhuhai, and I wished them a safe journey back across the border.

14 responses to “Chatting up Mainlanders on Hong Kong’s East Rail Line

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  2. There are well known Cantonese phrases that will probably explain it – loose translated into English:
    “Nothing in China is genuine, the only genuine goods are the fake ones – they are genuinely fake”
    “Every products produced in China can explode, except the explosives”

    What I do not get is, if you choose to live in China, why have to come all the way to HK (like you said it’s a hassel) to get your daily supply. MTR is a public transport, not for smugglers to transport their goods.

    If you do feel the pain of HKers, I would ask you to try living in SheungShui and witness the inflation and many other problems – HK locals cannot buy baby formula because Mainlanders wipe out every store (supply of baby formula is estimated by the manufacturer based on the birth rate of each city and country, not its neighbourhood countries)

    It’s a long story, involving politics, 1-country-2-system, etc. I have never seen people dropping their kids off in public besides HK, and those were caught in cameras allowing their kids or themselves to do it are Mainlanders. Would you tolerate that kind of low quality “tourists” in your home? Is HK really your home?

    • Dear TrueHKer,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. This is obviously a very important issue for you. As an American expat, I am clearly only a temporary resident of the wonderful city of HK and can only ever hope to partially understand local issues. In this blog I simply report my observations from the perspective of a perpetual outsider. Here are a few more of my observations and thoughts as an outsider on this issue:

      First, I once also lived in Zhuhai and came to Hong Kong to buy safe medicines and infant formula. I understand the fear of being a parent who doesn’t know whether to trust local products or not. So I have some sympathy for the Mainlanders demanding safe products from Hong Kong.

      Second, while I’m sure it is a huge annoyance to the residents of Sheung Shui, I hope that the MTRs new 32 kg limit (which I believe is being strictly enforced at the Sheung Shui MTR station) will help ease the public transportation and local supply problems.

      Third, if I were to pick something in the “Hong Kong” vs Mainland mentality to be upset about it would not be this, but rather the National Education program or the slowly, creeping self-censorship of the local HK press.

      Fourth, I know all about tacky, annoying tourists; everyone the world over puts up with them. Many Americans (“loud and always demanding ice”), British (“drunk and sunburnt”), Germans (“always taking all of the sun beds at the poolside”), Chinese (“making annoying queues at Louis Vuitton and wearing those silly matching hats”), etc, etc fit into this category. The sheer numbers of Mainland Chinese visiting HK can put this in another more irritating category, but at the end of the day everyone has to put up with sometimes annoying neighbors.

      And finally, as an American who’s border with Mexico is awash in drugs, gang violence and murder, a little smuggling of infant formula and Yakult still seems like a relatively minor annoyance.

      Thanks for giving me something to think about over lunch today.



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  5. I’ve stayed at heaps of mainland hotels (the ones with concrete mattresses), and have never used the in-house toothpaste. Most of the time, they contain sugar. A lot of local Chinese supermarket chains have shady tubes of yagao as well, then again, these stores also have zero refrigeration, and brands from before SEZs existed (do you see the irony in that?)…
    As for the opaque bags, reminds me of the barely-a-(black) bags some Chinese city buses have. If you see someone take one, it’s a bad sign.
    Though, since you commented on non-existent personal space vis-a-vis the mainlanders, do you think Hong Kong citizens “get it?” I’ve always felt Hong Kong to be the rudest place I’ve visited, elbow room notwithstanding, but with their northern neighbors swooping in more and more for a taste of Canton Rd., the SAR is reaching a whole new level of tomfoolery.

    • I guess Hongkongers (politeness vs. rudeness wise) seem about that same as any big international city: kind of cold but happy to help if you look like you need it.

      Unlike “TrueHKer” above, I don’t take Mainland Chinese as being particularly rude, just different (slightly more loud and slightly less interested in personal space). Here in Hong Kong I’ve had some very positive interactions with Mainlanders, but I don’t live in Sheung Wan and I’m not jostling with them for space in the maternity ward.

      As someone just getting over a stomach bug…I don’t need to think too much about those black bags…

  6. Oh, and I have one of those HK frequent visitor cards/labels. It can be used to fast-track HKG and a bunch of other border crossings. Though again, regarding the increase of mainland travelers, those fast-track lines at Luo Hu for example, are just a joke. Guess it pays to still be a “visitor” sometimes.

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